Food Imports Sail Past Scrutiny

 |  May 1st 2007  |   0 Contributions


Thanks to Jeannette for barking in this chilling New York Times article.

Food Imports Often Escape Scrutiny

By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
Published: May 1, 2007

Early in the 20th century, the safeguarding of food at American ports often amounted to inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration prying open containers of molasses or sugar and examining them for mold or insect parts.

The F.D.A. has come a way since then. But not much more.

Last year, inspectors sampled just 20,662 shipments out of more than 8.9 million that arrived at American ports. China, which in one decade has become the third-largest exporter of food, by value, to the United States, sent 199,000 shipments, of which less than 2 percent were sampled, former officials with the agency said.

Now, as F.D.A. inspectors travel to China to investigate the source of contaminated pet food that has killed at least 16 dogs and cats and sickened thousands of others, critics in Washington are warning that the agency is woefully understaffed and underfinanced to keep Americas food supply safe.


The public thinks the food supply is much more protected than it is," said William Hubbard, a former associate commissioner who left in 2005 after 27 years at the agency. If people really knew how weak the F.D.A. program is, they would be shocked."

Globalization and new manufacturing capabilities have changed the makeup of the food that Americans put on their table. Food processors in the United States are buying a greater number of ingredients from other countries, becoming more of an assembler in the nations food supply chain.

With globalization, American food processors are turning to less-developed countries to get food ingredients because they can get them so much more cheaply," Mr. Hubbard said.

To be sure, the F.D.A. has a number of procedures aimed at identifying problems with imported foods. Last year, the agency visually inspected over 115,000 shipments in addition to sending samples of over 20,000 shipments to a laboratory for analysis.

Still, the number of food inspections has lagged even as the number of food imports has shot up in recent years. Shipments more than doubled to an estimated 9.1 million this year from 2000, and are more than four times what they were in 1996. They have also doubled in value to $79.9 billion since 1996, according to the United States International Trade Commission.

Congress is scheduled to tackle the agencys financing issues and food-safety concerns as part of a broader hearing today of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The F.D.A. employs only about 1,750 food inspectors at ports and domestic food-production plants. There are so few inspectors that most domestic plants get a visit from an F.D.A. inspector only once every five to 10 years, Mr. Hubbard said. Unlike meat-processing plants overseen by the Agriculture Department, foreign food-production plants are not regularly monitored by the F.D.A.

Tommy G. Thompson, the former secretary of health and human services, expressed deep concern about the nations food supply when he resigned, for unrelated reasons, in December 2004.

For the life of me I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," said Mr. Thompson, who is a member of the Coalition for a Stronger F.D.A., a lobby group in Washington, and is running for president. He said he worried every single night" about threats to the food supply.

Mr. Thompsons concern stems from a growing gap between a flood of imports and a weakened food inspection regime. The F.D.A., which is responsible for monitoring 80 percent of the countrys food, inspects barely 1 percent of the food shipments arriving annually at hundreds of ports throughout the country, according to government statistics.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Thompson persuaded Congress to add 600 more inspectors, increasing the total F.D.A. field staff for food, drugs and medical devices, to about 4,000. But since then, the agencys budget has not kept pace with inflation and the staff has decreased to 3,488 fewer than the 3,500 in 2002.

Three spokesmen at the F.D.A. did not respond to phone calls and e-mail seeking responses to questions about the agencys staffing and inspections.

The latest episode of food contamination has alarmed many lawmakers in Washington. Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, sent a letter last Thursday to the Agriculture Appropriations Committee warning that F.D.A.s resources have not kept pace with its responsibilities, and increasing quantities of imported food products will continue to stress F.D.A.s capabilities." Mr. Durbin requested $650 million in next years Agricultural appropriations bill for the food safety inspection program.

Mr. Durbin noted that while the F.D.As budget increased over the past two decades by three-and-a-half times, to $1.5 billion from $416.7 million, the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased by more than 12 times and the National Institutes of Health rose about five times.

More than 130 countries ship food items to the United States. Canada, Mexico and China have led the way, with China shipping nearly five times as much in food items to the United States as it did in 1996, international trade commission figures show. Beverages, fish, nuts and fresh fruits and vegetables are among the categories showing the biggest growth.

There have also been increases in categories like residues and waste from food industries; prepared animal feed; and gums, resins and other vegetable saps and extracts, the trade commission said. Emulsifiers" or stabilizers" found in chewing gums and candies, for example, come from sub-Saharan Africa and Pakistan, Mr. Hubbard, the former F.D.A. official, said.

Imports of milling industry products like wheat gluten, while still small, have more than doubled in value since 1996. Food processors use glutens to raise protein content and thicken everything from candy bars to pet food.

In the same meal these days we may be eating food from several regions of the world," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington lobbying group. These food processors may be looking for a cheap new source, but they may pay for it down the line."

Companies like Menu Foods that have discovered melamine, the product suspected of causing the pet deaths, have been forced to recall several kinds of pet foods. In contrast to the F.D.A., the Agriculture Department, which oversees meat and poultry and monitors about 20 percent of the food supply, has about 9,000 food inspectors, more than five times that of the F.D.A. With more clout, it can require a foreign country to duplicate American slaughterhouse practices and send inspectors to certify foreign plants.

Today the risks can be chemical, pesticide-related or bacterial in nature none of which can be found by simply looking at the food, Mr. Hubbard said.

Large food sellers like Wal-Mart and grocery store chains have forced importers to sign contracts guaranteeing that their food is not contaminated. Large food processors like Cargill have put in place quality assurance programs in foreign-operated plants.

The large companies have already developed quality assurance systems that go across national boundaries," Ms. Smith DeWaal said. But we need those kinds of systems that are designed for medium and small companies that want to trade, and ensure that they are being enforced and audited in the countries where they are originating."

Otherwise, with the food-safety inspection system clearly overwhelmed, other countries will increasingly look at the United States as a dumping ground for substandard food shipments, Mr. Hubbard said.

The word is out," he said. If you send a problem shipment to the United States it is going to get in and you wont get caught, and you wont have your food returned to you, let alone get arrested or imprisoned."

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